Our Days Are Numbered

Our days are numbered, but most of us don’t know what our number is. Some of us are given an approximate number with the news of a terminal illness. I don’t want to know that experience. Ignorance is, well, maybe not bliss, but better than knowing.

Or is it? If I had the choice, would I rather know that I have one week left before something ends my life here on Earth? What would I do differently, how would I spend my time, if I knew how many days I had left to spend here?

Some years ago, I was given incorrect information from my doctor’s office that frightened me into what-if thoughts. Fortunately, that information was corrected within a week, but in that week’s time, I did some serious soul-searching.

When I learned of the nurse’s mistake, I was both relieved and furious. Relieved to learn of the mistake, and furious at the carelessness that had caused me to feel frightened, barely able to sleep, distracted on the job, unable to concentrate on anything else.

I let the anger go quickly, with gratitude for a new lease on life. I approached every new day with gratitude for life and everyone in it. I adopted the attitude of a man I’d worked with briefly on a special project. Whenever he was greeted with the standard “Hi, how are you?”, he replied, “It’s the best day of my life.” And he lived his words.

My attitude of absolute gratitude didn’t last long enough. Eventually, I let disappointments and aggravations get to me again. Even when I put on a happy face for the public, I felt the weight of things I allowed to trouble me. My attitude of gratitude was not consistent, far from it. I was more aware of what was missing, instead of what I had.

Now, as I turn the page and start a new chapter in the book of life, the chapter that begins with retirement, I strive to approach each new day as if it’s the best day of my life, with profound and sincere gratitude for the gift of another day to make a difference. No excuses.

The Words of My Mouth

I cherish being with those exceptional people who always see the best in others. One of my dearest friends is such a person. He truly and sincerely walks in love. I have never heard him criticize or speak ill of anyone, politicians aside. He is kind, compassionate, and looks only at his own flaws and short-comings. He loves his neighbors as himself, even when he disagrees with them. He inspires me.

I try not to share any negative words to influence others’ opinions of others; rather, to let them form their own opinion based on their experience, not mine.

I try not to criticize others. I try to remember to see others as I am–imperfect. Often I fail.

Imagine if we all look first at our own imperfections, before we find fault in others.

Divine Comedy

It is always a shock to hear of a suicide. The loss feels even greater when the person who took his own life was known for exceptional kindness, extraordinary generosity, and sensitivity to the needs of others. I was especially saddened by the death of Robin Williams because he had been open about his struggle with depression, not afraid to seek professional help, and, from news reports, it appeared he had taken a responsible approach to appropriate treatment.

Now, we ask questions. Did he leave a note? Did he give a reason? Did he describe the torment he chose to escape? Had he been thinking about suicide for a long time, or was this a sudden, impulsive need to end it all? Had his recent, heavy work schedule made it obvious that Parkinson’s had sapped his physical strength and stamina, and he believed he couldn’t continue to do what he loved to do? Was he too exhausted to think rationally? Did he share his desperation with therapists? Is suicide always an impulsive act in a weak, tortured, overwhelmed moment? Or, had he planned to cut out when he thought he could no longer perform at his best? We wonder. We make assumptions. But we don’t know.

We focus on our loss, but what about his pain, or torment, or whatever it was he couldn’t endure? Can we even begin to understand it, if we haven’t been in that dark place? Is it selfish to want him to be here still, when we have no idea what he was experiencing?

I keep hoping that Robin wrote a letter to his fans, something to comfort us, to explain why he needed to “exit stage left” before we thought the show was over. And I’m hopeful for Robin that he is in a place where he feels the joy of divine comedy.

Purple Hearts: Wounds of War

My dad landed at Omaha Beach with the First Infantry Division on June 7, 1944, into the carnage of D-Day. He was wounded in action in October of that year, hospitalized for five months, and returned to service. His Purple Heart is next to me as I write.

I grew up seeing the physical scars–a deep shoulder gash and shrapnel marks here and there. The emotional scars are impossible to fathom. He spoke little of his combat experience, until he wrote his World War II memoirs 54 years later, a factual account with few glimpses of personal perspective. He wrote at the encouragement of family, not because he felt he’d made a significant contribution or sacrifice. After all, he survived.

My dad was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family in good physical condition. Over the years, his typical mention of WWII involved references to foxholes and C-rations, or stories about the good people he met in England, France, and Belgium. He answered questions about his experience when asked. When I was very young, I asked him if he’d killed anyone in the war. He said yes. I couldn’t imagine my daddy killing anyone, but I understood that war required killing the enemy.

I also understood that the war had affected families in ways that weren’t discussed openly. Comments made in whispered tones about changes “since the war” hinted of irreparable damage. I still hear remarks about how a couple’s relationship was “never the same after the war”; about episodes of depression “after the war”; about children who never reconnected emotionally with their father as a result of the long separation, or because the father who returned from war was a strangely different person. Family dynamics were permanently altered. Yes, war is hell . . . for the entire family.

The Purple Heart medal is awarded for injury or death in combat. I imagine it represents much more than recipients can express, those who survive with the ability to communicate.

What about the families?

There should be a Purple Heart equivalent for family members of those who serve in combat to acknowledge their sacrifice. Their wounds are often dismissed, while the scars may be permanent. The effects of long absences on a relationship; the stress of single parenting; a child’s anxiety and fear of losing a parent; rifts among the extended family over unmet needs–these are but a few of the wounds of war.

War is hell for the entire family. What can we do about that?